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Forget the chef: give my compliments to the cook

Published 28 October 2012
News Review
1,005th article

Geraldine with Maria Damiani and Adriano Gramatica at Ristorante Lido (Arnold Crust)

It was Arrigo Cipriani, super-boss of my favourite restaurant, Harry's Bar in Venice, who said to me: "I have no chefs here; I only have 18 cooks." An example of this - people who cook but are not super-chefs - is Maria Damiani, the mother of Adriano Gramatica, for whom she has been cooking for 15 years. She was doing the same at other places for 20 years before that. So she’s been serving it up to the public for 35 years.

She operates at a modest restaurant called Ristorante Lido on the shores of Lake Garda in Italy. Her son does front of house (he speaks perfect English) and she runs the kitchen. By that, I mean all she does is cook. She is not on television advertising soup or any other commodity.

She does her job superbly. I can recall some of the finest cooks in the world who are totally unknown to the public, but none of them is a worse cook for that.

There is a difference between cooking and flouncing about on television and in magazines. When I started out as a mere youth, a cook was a cook. It was unheard of to know who they were, and nobody cared. You sat at a table and they provided food - I mean at a normal table in what I call a decent restaurant - and you would not be beleaguered by the pretence of fame or the flamboyance of an owner who was seldom there.

Thus it is with Adriano and his mother: they carry out, delightfully, a function of providing marvellous food in a great setting without the hindrance of fame or fortune.

It is people who have been cooking all their lives who tend to produce the most wonderful food. Another example is Trattoria Gianni Franzi, on the most exquisite harbourside in Vernazza, northwest Italy. The cooking is to such a remarkable standard that even the redoubtable Ruth Rogers, of London’s River Cafe, goes for lessons in how to throw the crockery about.

Such places - and there are many more - come up with high-class food that is truly remarkable. These people form a legion of consummate professionals who quite simply cook.

Cooking is not a speciality act. It does not require four men juggling lavatories, or a set of trapeze artists; it involves a knowledge of food, an ability to produce it well and customers who know what the cooks are doing and appreciate it.

These people, including the team of Maria and her son, are more than the backbone of good food; they are, to use a dreadful phrase, "purveyors of fine dining".

That said, if there are more ridiculous words than "fine dining", I do not know them. Fine dining evokes horrific images of people trying to be serious while they are, in fact, eating a load of tosh served up by idiots who consider themselves to be good cooks. To be a good cook requires skill that far outweighs theirs.

I recently spent a number of days in the Cromwell hospital, west London. A cheerful girl called Lindsey was my favourite of all the nurses on the third floor. She was very bright.

  • From David Eldridge:

    When Hymie dies and arrives at the Pearly Gates, St Peter asks his name.

    "I'm Michael Winner," he replies.

    St Peter says: "You're late. We expected you years ago. I'll let you in but on one condition."

    Hymie answers: "Sounds fair. What's the condition?"

    St Peter says: "You gave us a poor review. We want you to go down to Old Nick's Diner, which is both bad and good."

    Hymie replies: "Tell me about the bad first."

    St Peter says: "The food is always burnt and the central heating is shot to hell."

    Hymie asks: "And the good?"

    St Peter says: "You'll know everybody."

    Michael's missives

    Our local supermarket car park has an elderly chap with a bucket and sponge who will clean your car while you shop. From the photo last week, it looks as if the Hilton Kensington offers the same service. Hope the smart gentleman next to you was pleased with your efforts.
    Dave Landed, Lancashire

    The car is No 87 of a limited edition of 100 by Bentley, the fleece is one of 2m by Primark and the slippers came from a charity shop. But you, Mr Winner, are unique.
    Howard Bentley, Lancashire

    What a fantastic photo last week - best ever - featuring such a beautiful old girl. Not you, you old tart; your wonderful Bentley. If you feel yourself starting to slip away, could you let me know, so I can prepare to bid for her?
    Stef Dutchyn, Lincolnshire

    I am not sure that British Airways intended its first-class pyjamas to be used as casual lunch attire, although they do match the Bentley rather well.
    Steven MacGeachy, Chicago

    Could the old man on the back of News Review, sporting what appeared to be an old tracksuit, ill-fitting T-shirt and old carpet slippers, really be the same person who accused the Kensington Hilton of being "devoid of style"?
    Anthony Hale, Cardiff

    The charity-shop-closing-down-sale look you managed to achieve recently, contrasted by a stylish Dinah May, was quite amazing to behold. With the exception of the slippers, how do any of those ill-fitting garments relate to each other or their wearer?
    Graham Richards, Devon